Philemon 1-3 – Greeting

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Phm 1

  1. Normally Paul presents himself as an “apostle”, but now he presents himself as a “prisoner”.
    1. Paul is imprisoned in Rome when he writes this letter (Acts 28:30-31). Although Paul is a “Roman prisoner”, he chooses to think of himself as a “prisoner of Christ Jesus” because he is imprisoned for bearing witness to Jesus Christ (Philemon 13).
    1. This letter is about Paul wanting Philemon to release his slave Onesimus from “captivity” because Onesimus has now become a Christian. Paul therefore uses a rhetorical device when he titles himself “the prisoner of Christ Jesus”.
  2. Philemon is a Christian who has probably been saved thanks to Paul (Philemon 19).
    1. Philemon is rich and has a large house in the city of Colossae, where the local congregation gathers (Philemon 2).
    1. Philemon is a slave owner and owns the slave Onesimus. For some reason, Onesimus has escaped from Philemon and run into Paul.
      1. One theory is that Onesimus stole money from Philemon, ran away and then for some reason ran into Paul and became a Christian. Paul then sent Onesimus back to Philemon with this letter to try to persuade Philemon to forgive Onesimus and with an assurance that Paul will pay back whatever Onesimus owes Philemon.
      2. Another theory is that Onesimus for some reason did something that upset Filemon and cost Filemon money. Onesimus has therefore run away to escape severe punishment and sought out Philemon’s friend Paul to mediate. This is because Roman law at the time distinguished between a slave who ran away from his master to gain freedom and a slave who ran away to seek some form of asylum.
  3. In the Roman Empire of the time, slavery was a brutal reality.
    1. The population of the Roman Empire consisted of up to one third slaves.
    2. Most became slaves because they had committed a crime or been taken as prisoners of war in one of Rome’s successful wars.
    3. A Roman slave owner had the right to whip, kill or sell his slave.
    4. Some slaves suffered in miserable conditions without even having their own name, while others were able to have a reasonably good life.
    5. Most slaves were common labourers and worked in agriculture, while some lucky slaves were trained as physicists, architects, cooks, shop workers, hairdressers, artists, prophets, teachers, poets, philosophers, etc. As a result, some slaves were able to earn quite a bit of money from their work and were able to obtain administrative positions. Some slaves even gained power over other slaves and, to some extent, over free ones.
    6. Neither the Old nor the New Testament opposes slavery as an institution, but there are clear restrictions on how slaves may be treated (Exodus 21:1-32).
      1. According to Leviticus 25:39-43, an Israelite may not own another Israelite as a slave for more than 6 years because all the children of Israel are “slaves of God“.
      2. Paul uses a similar reasoning when he writes in his letter to Rome that all Christians are slaves of God (Rom 6:22) and further in his letter to the Galatians: “For you are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus. If you have been baptized into Christ, you have also put on Christ. Now no one is Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female. You are all one in Christ Jesus” (Gal 3:26-28).
        1. In the letter to Philemon, Paul shows how this was done in practice.
    7. So, according to Paul, a Christian cannot really own another Christian as a slave because all Christians are slaves of God. However, if a Christian does own slaves, he does not have to release his slaves automatically, because it is better for everyone to remain in the situation they are in (1 Corinthians 7:20-24).
    8. In Colossians 3:22-4:1, Paul gives exhortations to slaves and to slave owners: slaves must obey their masters in everything from the heart, because it is really the Lord they serve.  Slave owners are to treat their slaves “justly and reasonably,” arguing that “you know that you also have a master in heaven.
      1. So Paul does not explicitly oppose slavery as such, but in this letter to Philemon he emphasizes that slave and master are “beloved brothers” in Christ, thus making it virtually impossible for a Christian slave owner to own other Christians.
        1. In an empire built on slavery, this message is radical and totally transformative! It is difficult to underestimate the enormous impact of the Gospel message on all the slaves of the Roman Empire. For these oppressed people, the message of Jesus was indeed good news!

Phm 2

  1. The first Christians had no church buildings, but gathered in each other’s homes to worship (Acts 12:12, Romans 16:5, 1 Corinthians 16:19).
  2. It is important to remember that it is not the church building that is the church, it is the congregation, the Christians, that are the church.
  3. The earliest church building that archaeology has found is a house from around 232 AD in Dura-Europos in present-day Syria. The building is a simple house where a wall between two rooms has been knocked out to make room for about 70 people. In other words, the first church building was also really an ordinary home.
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